This report explores how ‘core capacities’ – or cornerstones of more familiar concepts such as life skills and competences – develop over the early part of the life course, and how they contribute to children’s well-being and development.
The report synthesises the work of nine detailed working papers – covering the core capacities of ‘Discerning patterns’, ‘Embodying’, ‘Empathizing’, ‘Inquiring’, ‘Listening’, ‘Observing’, ‘Reflecting’, ‘Relaxing’, and ‘Sensing’ – that individually review the empirical evidence on each core capacity in the academic literature. Each working paper assesses the contribution of the core capacities and the perspectives from which they are applied – mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual – to children’s well-being and development, and the practice and policies applied by adults working with children.
The purpose of the work is to assess how core capacities can improve the lives of children, and to understand the ways in which education systems and broader social systems can protect and promote these abilities. This project builds on the existing evidence base to better understand how children’s personal attributes (age and gender), and the world around the child, can promote the use of core capacities for benefit of child well-being and to improve policies and practices for child development.
The aim of this work is to use this learning to contribute practical steps to improve the living and learning conditions for children globally – not just in school, not just at home, but in their daily lives, and as they grow into adulthood.
The academic literature on skills development in childhood is rich and varied. Overall, it seeks to understand what should be in a child’s ‘toolkit for life’. Children who are well-equipped for life will be more able to meet the opportunities and challenges they face at home, at school, and in the world at large.
For almost 20 years, the Learning for Well-being (L4WB) Framework has been one contribution to this literature, which proposes that through the application of the most innate human abilities – or ‘core capacities’ – children can better understand and interact with the world around them, for life and for learning, and to realise their unique potential. Core capacities can be viewed as cornerstones of life skills. The most innate and basic human abilities, so easily taken for granted, that they underutilised in efforts to promote child well-being and development. The nine core capacities in the framework are ‘Discerning patterns’, ‘Embodying’, ‘Empathizing’, ‘Inquiring’, ‘Listening’, ‘Observing’, ‘Reflecting’, ‘Relaxing’, and ‘Sensing’.
The L4WB Framework also proposes that each core capacity can be expressed through mental, emotional, and physical aspects, within a broader spiritual dimension, and in this way, come together to form a ‘holistic’ and a child-centred view of abilities development embedded at the centre of a broader and dynamic socio-ecological framework (a living social system).
This research sought to understand whether the evidence from the literature conceptualises and operationalises each capacity from a mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual perspective.
In the case of ‘listening’ studies, for instance, the review records when children’s listening skills were measured and tested in terms of cognition (mental), function (physical), or feeling (emotional), to understand the differences in how these skills were promoted or protected in practice, and how they affected the child. However, across all of the core capacities, studies which claimed that they capture a spiritual perspective (a sense of connection to all things – indivisible from the other perspectives), were few and far between.
Both in the public policy and academia regarding human development, spirituality and the spiritual perspective lacks credibility and evidence compared to more proven concepts of mental, emotional, and physical skills development. In the L4WB Framework, the spiritual dimension is considered pervasive, and experienced as “a sense of connection to all things, including natural and manmade environments”. The spiritual perspective is not distinguishable from the mental, physical, and emotional perspectives, but rather connecting these, to express a more holistic, human-centred view of life, and therefore abilities and life skills.
What are core capacities?
A growing body of evidence suggests that successful performance in school, work and life needs to be supported by a wide range of skills, the development of which should be nurtured and expanded throughout childhood.
Core capacities are an attempt to identify the foundations of human ability to relate with oneself, others, and the environment, often the focus of the life skills literature (e.g. negotiation skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills). By attempting to identify abilities that are ‘elementary’ (or non-divisible) the core capacities in the L4WB Framework offer a new way of conceptualising skills development without seeking to replace existing life skills models – complementing the same ambitions – whilst also offering a point of consensus across various life skills models. The framework also views these capacities as fundamentally human skills, which are held in varying degrees and expressed differently by each individual (children and adults), that this uniqueness is valuable, and that public systems including education systems, should both promote the development of these skills, and protect these skills from being ‘taught out’ of children.
Importantly, these core capacities, from the various perspectives, do not promote economic, social, or civic returns above one another, but rather seek to promote holistic child development and well-being.
Children come equipped with capacities that support lifelong learning and development. These capacities need to be promoted and protected.
There are critical windows of opportunity to develop these capacities in early childhood and adolescence. Policy, educational and parental practice should pay close attention to these periods.
These capacities are often overlooked and yet they are foundational (the basis) for developing more complex social-emotional and academic competences.
These capacities support one another, with some being "gateway" capacities that support many others. Gateway capacities include: Listening, Sensing, and Observing, because children access information for ‘processing’ as part of practicing core capacities. These are distinct from capacities, such as empathy, which require the aforementioned capacities to be well-developed in order for children to effectively empathise.
Children's capacities are interconnected with the capacities of adults, who play a modelling role and influence children's chances of developing such capacities themselves.
An evaluation of an eight-week mindfulness training programme for children aged 7-9 in England found significant gains in children’s emotional well-being and metacognition skills.
Children’s levels of empathy significantly affect their social functioning, such as prosocial behaviours, bullying, and quality of relationships with parents and peers.
Listening improves early reading and later reading comprehension, learning outcomes and concentration. Furthermore, listening is associated with various mental health outcomes, including coping, self-esteem, and happiness and relaxing – particularly in the ‘listening to music’ literature.
Reflecting improves working memory, cognition and generosity.
Core capacities contribute to child development and beyond: evidence across all papers show how core capacities are essential prerequisites to child development in terms of cognitive development, mental health, physical health, pro-social behaviours, and more.
Parenting practices: when parents practice the core capacities, and act as role models, this increases the likelihood of children developing core capacities.
The home environment: the ability of parents to promote and protect children’s core capacity development is shown to be dependent on parental education, and home factors, such as time and resources necessary to the practice. Reading, play, listening to music, sensory stimulation, or simply the presence of parents or caregivers as children learn and play at home, are all shown to promote core capacities in children, and are all dependent on having the materials, education, disposition, and time to engage.
When to work with children, age-related development of core capacities: all of the core capacities are found in children in the preschool years, with inquiry and empathy shown in preverbal infancy, and listening in-utero, meaning preschool services, including birth services, social protection and child protection interventions, should all – to varying degrees – be sensitized to their roles in the protection and promotion of these capacities. Age-related development show that, in the majority of cases, capacities improve over the years, although in a non-linear fashion.
How to work with children: evidence from the literature shows that modalities by which to practice core capacities with children can include more active and multisensory work – using drawing, role play, visuospatial and visuomotor learning, computer-assisted learning, active inquiry, simple listening, and planned reflection (mindfulness), at both school and home are all associated with improved outcomes.
Where to work with children, enabling environments: outside of the home environment, the availability and management of other spaces where children spend their time matter, and childrne’s inaction with nature should be promoted whenever feasible. Evidence suggest that access to natural environments – green spaces – can have a positive influence on children’s abilities and outcomes such as working memory, learning outcomes, problem-solving, decision-making, and creative thinking. School and classroom environments can also promote positive outcomes.
Policies to support parents: policies and interventions to address these inequalities in the home are key to addressing unequal outcomes for children within and between countries. At the national level, social protection, family friendly policies, child protection, nurse family parentships, and parenting programmes all have a role to play, and should be managed accordingly.
Policies to support practitioners: from the earliest ages, all practitioners that engage with children directly need to be fully-resourced and trained to ensure they can promote and protect children’s development of these basic human abilities. And that they themselves should be willing to engage their own core capacities in that process. Evidence suggest that waiting until school age, and relying on teachers alone, would be a sub-optimal approach. In the most advance economies and welfare systems this will not require fundamental changes to polices, but rather adaptations to implementation and practice. In developing systems, these practices can be rolled-out in line with new policies and programmes.